As I found myself splashing through the choppy water of the Chincoteague Bay aboard a pontoon boat on a chilly Spring day last April, I hunkered down into my borrowed fisherman’s slicker, butt already soaked through to the skin from the waves washing over the side, and thought to myself, “this is how much I love my daughter.” But who was I kidding? Ever since I read Misty of Chincoteague as a girl, I too have wanted to see the wild ponies of Chincoteague, Virginia. After rereading this classic children’s novel with our mother-daughter book club I had a feeling Chincoteague, VA and Assateague, MD were going on to our travel wish list. A spring mother-daughter Mid-Atlantic road trip to Lancaster, Gettysburg, and Ocean City afforded us the perfect opportunity to visit.
For those not familiar with the wild ponies, they are fabled to be descendents of horses that survived a shipwreck of a Spanish Galleon centuries ago. Today there are two herds that live on Assateague Island with about 300 horses in total — one north of the fence in Maryland and another south of the fence in Virginia. The Maryland herd, known as Assateague horses, live within the Assateague National Seashore. The other 150 ponies that live in Virginia are known as the Chincoteague ponies and live within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, but are owned by the fire department. In 1835, islanders began the process of pony penning, by rounding up some of the ponies and bringing them to the mainland to prevent overcrowding. In 1924, the first formal Pony Penning Day was held by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, where ponies were rounded up and auctioned off to raise money for fire equipment. This practice continues to this year, with an annual “pony swim” in July of each year, a tale so aptly told by Marguerite Henry in Misty of Chincoteague.
Your first choice when visiting is deciding whether you are going to visit the Assateague National Seashore or the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (or both). Just keep in mind that while they are both on Assateague Island, you cannot get through the fence separating the states so you need to either enter the Assateague National Seashore in Maryland (about 15 minutes south of Ocean City), or enter the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge through the bridge at Chincoteague (about 1 hr 15 mins south of Ocean City, MD.) While Assateague is arguably one of the most beautiful stretches of beach on the East Coast, we were Misty fans, so we were heading to Chincoteague.
Forewarned by my mom, who had taken a bus trip to see the ponies, and my sister, who had driven through the wildlife refuge earlier in the year, I knew the ponies could prove elusive and I wasn’t driving eight hours for a distant glimpse. I wanted a sure thing and the only way to get that was with a guaranteed pony tour from Captain Dan’s Around the Island Tours. Which is how I wound up getting soaked on a boat during one of the coldest Aprils in recent years. You see, Captain Dan doesn’t wait for the ponies to come to you, he takes you to the ponies.
Growing up on the island, Captain Dan’s Around The Island Tours has a passion for the ponies that is infectious. He knows where to find the ponies because he understands how they live. He can recognize most of the stallions by sight from their markings and coloring, and he knows how many mares are in each herd and which ones are expecting or recently gave birth to foals. Before visiting, I just thought of the horses as the Chincoteague Ponies — so I was surprised to not only learn that they have names, but that some visitors come back again and again in hope of seeing their favorites.
After our wet ride out, which was really only choppy because of the recent rough weather in the area, we moved into calmer seas and soon approached our first herd.
After spending some time observing this small herd from a distance, we wound our way through the inlets of the island, almost all the way up to the Maryland border, until we found a couple more herds close to the water. This is what we came for, and this is where Captain Dan really delivered on his promise of guaranteed pony sightings.
While we were watching the second herd, one of the wild ponies came running through the woods and out into the open area, like it was calling to the rest of the herd. After watching them lazily strolling around nibbling on grass, it was surprising to see how fast their small legs can run.
The next herd gave us yet another surprise when we saw a baby foal, just days if not hours old, slowly make its way up onto four legs and trot away after its mama.
When we had finally gotten our fill (or at least our 2.5 hours worth), it was time to head back to the dock and explore the rest of what Chincoteague had to offer. If you aren’t able to take a pony boat tour, there are other places you can find the wild ponies including at the “Wild Pony Overlook” on the Woodland Trail in the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge (we didn’t see any), across the fence line on beach road, between the lighthouse and the Woodland Trail (saw a few from a distance), from atop the Assateague Lighthouse (saw a few from far away), hiking the Chincoteague Natural History Association service trail, and at the Chincoteague Pony Center.
While most people come to Chincoteague with at least some interest in seeing the ponies, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy Chincoteague and Assateague including:
- Assateague Island — stop at the Tom’s Cove Park for permits for campfires or over sand vehicles, as well as to learn where horseback riding is permitted on the beach.
- Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge — in addition to the Bateman educational and information center, the refuge offers numerous hiking and biking trails. The Woodland Trail is a 1.6 mile loop through the woods (obviously) with a viewing platform over the marsh. The 3.2 mile wildlife loop is open from 3pm to dusk to vehicles. You can also take one of their wildlife bus tours, which run from April through November (tickets can be purchased in advance or on-site.)
- Assateague Lighthouse Trail — located within the Wildlife Refuge, Assateague Light can be found at the end of a short .25 mile trail and is generally open 9am to 3pm. You can climb to the top of the lighthouse for panoramic views of the island. It is $5 for adults and $3 for children.
- Go crabbing off of Assateague Bridge
- Rent a boat from Capt. Bob’s Marina
- Bike through town and the refuge with bike rentals from Jus Bikes
- Explore downtown and the rest of the island using the Ride the Island Trolley
- Visit the Museum of Chincoteague and The Horse with No Name Gallery, owned and operated by the daughter of Maureen Beebe from Misty of Chincoteague.
- Take an eco-tour with Captain Barry’s Back Bay Cruises
- Spend some time at the NASA Visitor Center, Wallops Island, just across the causeway on the mainland
- Enjoy some family fun time at Refuge Golf & Bumper Boats
- Visit the Chincoteague Pony Centre to see the ponies and take a pony ride
- Rent a kayak or take a kayak tour with Assateague Explorer
- Get ice cream at Island Creamery Ice Cream and be sure to try their famous Marsh Mud if you love chocolate!
What things do you like to do in Chincoteague?